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Let It Go

John Banville

In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, by David Rieff, Yale University Press, 160 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 9780300182798

This is a shocking book, and all the better for it. Many right-thinking and historically well-informed people with a lively sense of justice will be appalled, even outraged, by its central argument, yet it is an argument they will be hard put to refute. In his closing pages, David Rieff states his case with a cogency and directness that are not blunted by the fact that it is framed in the form of a rhetorical question: “is it not conceivable,” he writes, “that were our societies to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that they now do on remembering ... peace in some of the worst places in the world might actually be a step closer?”

Rieff, a scholar and journalist, knows whereof he speaks. He reported on the Bosnian war and subsequently wrote a book about that conflict, aptly entitled Slaughterhouse. His most recent work, The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century, concludes, wearily but encouragingly, with a reaffirmation of the centrality of state democracy in the battle against world poverty and hunger. He is as clear-eyed as the English political philosopher John Gray on the fatuity of our notions of “progress” and of our hopes for the therapeutic value of globalisation, and has little time for “celebrity humanitarians” such as Bill and Melinda Gates, although he does not doubt their good intentions. He is not a Cassandra, nor a Tiresias either, but that rarest of things, a realist with a conscience.

He begins In Praise of Forgetting with a consideration of Lawrence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen”, which many readers will be surprised to learn was first published in the London Times on September 21st, 1914, only six weeks after the outbreak of the Great War and two months before the first battle of Ypres, in which, as Rieff notes, “the majority of Britain’s prewar professional army was either killed or wounded”. The poem, therefore, is not, Rieff points out, a lament for “the Fallen”, the greater number of which at the time when it was written had not yet been felled, but is “a classic patriotic poem, far closer in spirit to Horace’s ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country)”. Rieff compares Binyon’s poem unfavourably to what he regards as a far greater work, Kipling’s “Recessional”, each stanza of which concludes with the line “Lest we forget ‑ lest we forget!”, a line that, in Rieff’s reading of it, “is a mournful acknowledgment that such forgetting is inevitable”.

Rieff sees Kipling not as the jingoistic kettle-drummer of empire that he may at times seem, but as a realist like himself, and a deeply pessimistic one at that. In this context, he quotes from another of Kipling’s verses, which most of us would consider highly uncharacteristic of the poet:

This season’s Daffodil,
She never hears,
What change, what chance, what chill,
Cut down last year’s;
But with bold countenance,
And knowledge small,
Esteems her seven days’ continuance
To be perpetual.

But nothing, in the fleeting human sphere, is perpetual, especially our memories of momentous and atrocious events of the past. In the first of many instances that Rieff cites of the inevitability of forgetting, he reminds us ‑ in fact, one suspects most of us we will be hearing it for the first time ‑ that the American national holiday called Memorial Day, which falls on the last Monday in May, first took place on May 1st, 1865, “and was organized by African American freedmen in Charleston, South Carolina, in honor of the 257 Union soldiers who had died in the local racecourse that the Confederates had used as a prison camp during the war ... “ ‑ a fact to cause any dedicated white supremacist to choke on his can of beer.

One such extremist was Dylann Roof, who in June 2015 entered an African Methodist Episcopalian church in that same city of Charleston and shot dead nine people. In the aftermath of the massacre, Rieff points out, “the question of why the Civil War had been fought became, for the first time in decades, part of the mainstream debate”. However, what if, he asks, the target of Roof’s hatred had been Native Americans rather than blacks? “Even assuming that the shock would have been as great, there could have been no similar reservoir of historical memory to draw upon, whether accurately or inaccurately ... The reasons for this would have had nothing to do with history and everything to do with what Americans remember and what they have forgotten.”

To back up this assertion he refers to King Philip’s War of 1675-76, also known as Metacom’s Rebellion, which very nearly wiped out the Plymouth Colony of English settlers “and at least for a time put an end to the European conquest of the northeastern part of what would become the United States”. The slaughter caused by the war was appalling ‑ the Native American population of Massachusetts and Rhode Island fell by up to eighty per cent while the losses on the settlers’ side, though smaller, were no less catastrophic. But who now, apart from professional historians, talks of or even remembers King Philip’s War? “What this shows,” says Rieff, “is that the historical importance of an event in its own time and in the decades that follow offers no guarantee that it will be remembered in the next century, let alone for many centuries after.”

This is not a lament, but merely a statement of how things are. Everything will be forgotten sooner or later, in the fullness, or emptiness, of time, but even when events from the past are “remembered” they are likely to be distorted or shaped by collective memory to the needs of the present.

Rieff gives much thought to and places much emphasis upon the concept of collective memory. He quotes the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, for whom collective memory is “a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present”, and a means by which societies and entire nations mould their identity. “Irish history,” Rieff says, “provides a particularly illuminating case study of the uses and misuses of the past in the construction, reconstruction, amendment, and transformation of the collective memory.” And he can say that again.

Looking at the work of Roy Foster, especially his recent, superb study of the 1916 period, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923, Rieff asserts that “the essence of historical remembrance consists of identification and psychological proximity rather than historical accuracy, let alone historical nuance and depth”. This is certainly true, but here, as elsewhere in this wonderfully subtle and stimulating book, Rieff skates over the question of what “historical accuracy” in fact consists in ‑ or if, indeed, there is such a thing, strictly speaking. The nineteenth century French historian Ernest Renan had no doubt that nations are founded “on a rich legacy of memories”, but he had no illusions about the necessity for the historical accuracy of such collective memories: “Forgetting,” he wrote, “and I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”

The question that arises, however, is whether it is really the past that we remember, or a version of events that is distorted, wilfully or otherwise. This leads on to another question, one that is specific to Rieff’s argument: is it the past we should be willing to forget, or a dream of the past? In other words, is he pleading for us to relinquish the actual recollection of events, or our dreams? As Yeats wrote in his great poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War”,

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.

Rieff takes up historical, social and even ethical cudgels against contemporary thinkers such as the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit and the Bulgarian historian and critic Tzvetan Todorov, both of whom, Rieff suggests, would agree with the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur when he wrote: “We must remember because remembering is a moral duty. We owe a debt to the victims ... By remembering and telling, we ... prevent forgetfulness from killing the victims twice.” Certainly this is the accepted liberal position. “But however counterintuitive my argument may seem,” Rieff offers, “and however much one honours the moral seriousness” of Ricoeur, Margalit, Todorov and others, “what if they are wrong? What if, over the long term, forgetfulness is inevitable, while even in the comparatively short term the memory of an instance of radical evil, up to and including the Shoah itself, does nothing to protect society from future instances of it?”

This is indeed a radical question for anyone, and especially for a Jew such as Rieff, to pose, even if we confine ourselves only to remembrance of the horrors of the twentieth century. But it is a question that Rieff confronts us with again and again throughout his book. Here is a particularly concise formulation of his position. What if, he asks,

a decent measure of communal forgetting is actually the sine qua non of a peaceful and decent society, while remembering is the politically, socially, and morally risky pursuit? Or, to put it somewhat differently, what if the past can provide no satisfactory meaning, no matter how generously and inclusively ... it is interpreted? In short, what if, at least in some places and on some historical occasions, the human and societal cost of the moral demand to remember is too high to be worth paying?

We in Ireland who remember, and remember vividly, the horrors we inflicted upon ourselves ‑ ourselves, that is, and the “others” whom we identified as not-ourselves ‑ in the tribal warfare that raged in Northern Ireland from the end of the 1960s to the middle of the 1990s, will know exactly what Rieff is talking about. We, collectively, have had to forget so much ‑ although “forget” is used here, as Rieff uses it throughout his book, in a special sense, the sense of accepting, for instance, the presence in our parliaments, North and South, of people on whose hands the blood is hardly yet dry. In 1994, in the week in which the IRA announced an end to its campaign of violence, Michael Longley’s poem “Ceasefire” was published in The Irish Times. The poem made no mention of Northern Ireland or the IRA, but was a version of the passage in the Iliad when Priam comes to offer reconciliation to Achilles after the slaying of Hector. In the last stanza, he says:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Hard and terrible as it may be, Rieff suggests, at times we must be willing to make ourselves at least behave as if we can forget great wrongs. As he writes, there are cases,

small in number, no doubt, but high in the potential for human suffering, in which it is possible that whereas forgetting does an injustice to the past, remembering does an injustice to the present.